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Vol 46 | Num 1 | Jan 1, 2021

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Chum Lines

Article by Capt. Mark Sampson

THE BEST JOB IN THE WORLD?

“You have the greatest job in the world!” he said as he handed me a wad of hundred dollar bills. “It’s my dream to someday retire from my contractor’s job, get a boat, and JUST do this for the rest of my life. Man you have it made!”

I thanked the gentleman, jammed my pay for the day in my pocket, and watched as he and his gang walked down the dock and into the nearby restaurant where they would cap off their day by having a wonderful dinner while overlooking the marina before returning to their beach front condo for the night.

Turning back to the Fish Finder I noted that it looked very much like a boat which had just endured a grueling 11-hour day of fishing. Fish and bait slime was everywhere, rods, reels, and terminal tackle in total disarray, it appeared as though a fish had literally exploded in and on the fishbox, someone spilled an entire bag of Cheez-Doodles on the cabin floor before trampling them into the carpet, the head was still reeking from the seasick guy who locked himself in there for a half hour on the ride home, and by-golly it was time for our 100-hour oil change!
Barring any “unforeseens”, in a couple hours my mate and I would have everything done and the boat ready for tomorrow’s trip - he’d take care of the outside and I’d handle the inside which, along with the normal stuff that evening, would also include the head, oil change and Cheez-Doodles. Then we’d both drive off to our respective homes for the night. Along the way he’d likely have dinner out of a Chick-Fil-A bag while I’d enjoy mine at home with my wife sometime between 8:30 and 9:00 with the guarantee of at least one or two interruptions by clients calling to talk about upcoming charters. After dinner an hour would be spent following up on emails, texts, and phone messages, updating the required catch reports, putting new line on a reel that I needed to use the next day, and taking inventory of my bait freezer. Somewhere between 10:30 and 11:00 I’d find my way to bed, but not before setting the alarm for 4:15 when it would be time to get up and do “the best job in the world” all over again. Yep, I’ve got it made alright - just living the dream!

But I guess can’t blame folks who charter boats or book fishing guides for being somewhat envious of what they see. After all, when someone steps aboard a nice clean boat in the morning and is welcomed by a happy crew that’s eager to get out on the water and have some fun, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that they have indeed discovered “the best job in the world”. But, of course, as I’ve already alluded to, what the average client witnesses is only a slight smidgen of what running a charter boat is all about.

Clients see only the harvest

To put things into a little more perspective I often liken charter fishing to farming. If someone were to follow around a farmer during harvest time they might conclude that farming is a pretty cool job as farmers get to work outside, drive big combines, and rake in all that money when they take their crops to market. Of course we know that getting paid for what they harvest is just the culmination of months of often grueling work and much worry over equipment failures, maintenance, weather, grain prices, labor issues, and everything else that goes along with running a farming business. And there’s always the chance that a farmer’s crops might fail or unforeseen expenses occur that leave nothing in the bank to show for it for a season’s worth of work.

Such is the life of a farmer, and so too when someone tries to squeak out a living from charter fishing where it’s likely that for every hour spent fishing they’ll probably spend five doing all the other stuff that’s needed to keep their boat running and services in demand. What our clients see while they’re out on our boats with us is the absolute best part of the job - “the fishing”, the time when all the preparation we’ve done since the end of last season comes to a head and we can get on the water, have fun, reap our harvest and finally bring in some money!

Each season the perception that charter fishing is the “perfect job” for someone who loves to fish tempts a constant flow of captains into the for-hire fishing industry. Many of those captains will later conclude that the decision proved to be the best career move they’ve ever made. However, there’s also a constant outflow of captains who, after realizing what charter fishing is really all about, will cut their losses and fall back (or perhaps “move up”) to a more conventional way to put bread on their table. After 33 years of doing it, I’ve got a short list of things prospective captains should probably know about the crazy nature of charter fishing and inherent problems associated with trying to run a business that’s reliant on keeping boats running, fish biting and customers calling:

It’s a business that’s not just about driving boats and fishing

Most captains start out as recreational anglers and are accustomed to heading out each day with no more care in the world than hoping to have fun on the water and try to catch a few fish. Over time, they gain experience and probably get better at both fishing and boating at which point some will begin to entertain thoughts of going into the “business” of taking passengers for hire. But making the transition from “fun” fishing to “charter” fishing is like going from having friends over for dinner to actually opening a restaurant. Everything changes as soon as someone starts charging money and bringing the public aboard their boat. And being a good fisherman or a great captain does not mean that someone is capable of running a successful charter business because some folks are just not cut out for managing their own time, finances, customer relations, promotions, advertising, bookkeeping and everything else that goes into running a business.

Expenses are high profits small

I once overheard a couple guys who had just returned from an offshore charter speculating about how much money their captain probably makes each year. They had just paid $2000 for a day of fishing and by their quick estimates of what the boat used in fuel, ice, and bait, they somehow figured that the captain probably took home about $1500 that day. Apparently he had told them that he ran about 100 trips a season so they concluded that in a 5-month period he was making about 150-thousand dollars. “Not bad,” one fellow said, “for less than a half year of fishing!”

Ooooh I wanted so much to crash their conversation and explain how the expenses of owning and maintaining the million dollar boat they were riding on that day would probably swallow up most if not all of the charter fees they paid, and that the captain (who was also the owner of the boat) would be lucky if he was able to save enough money to pay his slip deposit at the end of the year.

Most folks have absolutely no concept of how much time and expense it takes to keep an active charter boat and all the necessary tackle and equipment up in running and in good state of repair. Maintenance and repair are typically one of the largest annual expenses of owning a boat and captains need to know that if they can’t do a huge chunk of the work themselves they had better have another job on the side because the cost of paying someone else to do it for them could ruin their chance of actually turning a profit.

Might spoil the love of fishing

When I decided to go into this business, my biggest fear (besides going broke) was that turning my passion for fishing into a “job” would ruin my enjoyment of the sport. Three decades later I’m relieved that those fears were unfounded and I still love fishing as much as ever, but it doesn’t work that way for everyone. Captains sometimes dive into the business with great enthusiasm but later find that the day-after-day grind of dealing with boats, equipment, clients, weather, and everything else that goes along with the occupation ends up stifling their zeal for the sport until chasing fish becomes nothing more than another grueling “job”. I know that most avid fishermen would probably consider the thought “nonsense” that they could ever lose their desire to go fishing. “That would never happen to me!” But unfortunately, it does happen that after a while some captains just get burnt out on fishing and drift away to other interests.

Also, the transition from “angler” to “captain” can be a problem for some who go into the fishing business because they suddenly find that they almost never have a chance to catch a fish themselves. Charter captains must be able to make a very important transition, they must be able to forgo their own desire to be the angler on the boat holding the rod and catching the fish and be able to focus 100% effort on helping others (their clients) catch fish - not everyone can do that.

Must put life on hold

To be successful, charter operators need to build and maintain a repeat clientele. That’s done by providing fair, honest, and reliable service to everyone they do business with. Clients will book a trip days, weeks, or sometimes many months in the advance, and when they commit to the captain they need to know that he’s 100% committed to honoring that commitment. The first year I was chartering I missed my sister’s wedding because I had a trip booked months before she set her wedding date. Clients want and need to be able to count on their captain, knowing that when they book a trip with him the only thing that might keep them from going is adverse weather. They set their travel plans, room reservations, job schedules and everything else they have going on in their lives so that they can fish that day and the last thing they want to hear is that the captain needs to cancel or reschedule the trip because the boat broke down or he’s got a wedding to go to.

On a similar note, the fishing season only allows x-amount of days to make an income, so lost days can’t be made up. A three day camping trip becomes an expensive affair for the guy who turns down three days of charter trips for it. When you’re making a living running a boat there’s no blanking out the calendar for days-off and vacations, you fish every day possible and save the other stuff for the off-season months.

Income

When I was in my twenties and hoping to start a career as a charter boat captain I found myself bouncing from bank to bank trying to find one that would finance a boat. The process was as eye-opening as it was humbling. The problem wasn’t that I had bad credit, it was trying to convince bankers that I could pay back the loan with money I was going to make running charters. They knew darn well that the charter business was risky, but I was too pig-headed to heed their warnings or be swayed from the course I had set for myself. I eventually got the needed financing and actually paid the boat off a couple years early, but there was a lot of struggling along the way. The bottom line is that charter fishing is not a path to great wealth, it’s a lot of work for a little money, with no unemployment compensation, healthcare, or retirement funds, and definitely no overtime pay!

The last thing someone in this business wants to do is divide their annual income by the amount of hours they work because it will only lead to depression when they see how much they make per hour. Minimum wage? Ha - not even close!

Unfair Competition

Imagine having a retail store that buys products for $10 and sells them for $15. Another guy opens a similar store on the same block and buys the same products for $10 but sells them for only $8. Not understanding why the guy sells his products at a loss you question him and he tells you, “I really don’t need to make any money with my store, retail sales is just a fun hobby for me.

Welcome to the charter business - one of the few occupations where a big chunk of the competition has no chance, intention, or even desire, to turn a profit! It should be understandable how this unique quark within the industry is something that a lot of full time captains might take exception to. After all, when someone invests 100% of their time and money into an occupation that they hope will pay the bills and feed their kids, it can be unsettling to see some rich, retired dude set up shop nearby and compete for the same customers.
Of course this is nothing new, it has pretty much always been that way. Anywhere there are boats for hire there have always been, and always will be the part-timers who are in the business for reasons that might have nothing to do with making money. The thing is, a lot of them are really top-notch captains who are a credit to the industry and the fishery, so I’m not suggesting that there is anything “wrong” with part time captains and boats, it’s just something that anyone who is thinking about diving full time into the business needs to be aware of and ready to accept its quark.

CHARTER FISHING 101

Despite all its inherent quarks, a lot of anglers still consider charter fishing to be the best occupation in the world and every year there’s a new batch that take the steps necessary to get their captain’s license, a boat, a slip at a marina, a website, Facebook page, business cards and all the other “stuff” they think they’ll need to make a living doing what they love. And just in case any of them are reading this column right now here’s a few more insights and suggestions that I hope will help you reach your goal:

Put your ego on hold. It’s not about you - it’s about them

As a whole, I think we fishermen have some of the biggest egos on the planet. From the time we catch our first little sunny in a pond we are forever trying to catch more and bigger fish than anyone else, and when we do, by golly we want everyone to know about it! As captains it’s our job to guide our clients to a catch that they can take pride in and get recognition for. Everyone knows the role that a captain plays in every fish that’s caught aboard his boat, but at the end of the day he should ensure that the spotlight is not shining on himself, but on his clients who are the ones who financed the trip, caught the fish, and will hopefully return to fish with him again.

Learn how to fix your boat

There are only so many days in a fishing season and you don’t want to miss a single one due to some kind of boat or equipment malfunction. The cost of repairs can be bad enough, the loss of revenues from downtime can be devastating. Losing a few days on the water as you wait for a repair technician to fit you into his schedule to take care of something you could have fixed yourself is not a place you want to be in the middle of a busy season. Some things can only be repaired by professionals, but there’s a whole lot more that you can do yourself with the right parts, tools, and a basic knowledge of the workings of your boat and how it’s put together. Being equipped to replace an impeller or fan belt at sea can be the difference between running your trip and making a paycheck that day or needing a towboat to get you home. Remember too that little issues can eventually turn into big problems, so don’t put things off for a later date, take care of every little problem when it first shows up and you won’t have to worry about it exploding on you later.

Don’t leave the boat at the end of the day until it’s clean and looking sharp.

Your boat is a billboard for your business and its appearance is a reflection on you. Walk around the docks at any marina and you’ll see that at the end of the day most boats are left clean and orderly, but there will also be one or two that aren’t. Appearance is everything and a boat that has rusty hooks and rigs hanging about, unemptied trash cans, dirty rags on the deck, empty beverage containers and other clutter isn’t going to be as inviting to potential clients as one that looks sharp and well cared for.

Keep up with requirements and regulations that apply - there are many!

A necessary evil of being in the charter fishing business is keeping up to date on the countless permits, licenses, and regulations that come to play whenever you take paying passengers out to catch a fish. It’s confusing, it’s a hassle, and it’s expensive for a charter captain to stay in compliance with all the state, federal, and local requirements but it’s necessary and failure to be in compliance can put an immediate halt to your business right in the middle of a busy season.

Bookkeeping - Do it!

Captains need to closely monitor their cash flow (money coming in and going out) and maintain good bookwork. Yea, I know, most captains will say, “Hey I’m a fisherman not an accountant, I can’t do that stuff!” And if that’s the case you had better learn how to do it, or get someone to do it for you, otherwise you’re on a road to failure. Poor accounting practices and the mishandling of revenues and expenses is a major reason why businesses go under.

Hire good mates

Just because someone can rig a nice bait doesn’t mean they’ll be an asset to your business. On most boats the mate has more interaction with the clients than the captain does. It’s your efforts that brought the clients to the boat, don’t let the mate run them off. You can teach anyone how to bait a hook. You need a mate that’s as reliable, courteous and professional as you (hopefully) are.

Fish the days you book

If you’re trying to make money with a boat, you need to run a lot, not just when you feel like it. If things are going well there will be times when you might be booked without a break for many weeks. Unless you absolutely have to, don’t schedule days off. Mother Nature will take care of that for you by whipping up a bad weather day now and again. The last thing you want to do during the season is sit at the dock when the weather is nice.

Follow up right away with texts, phone messages and emails.

Usually the last thing a captain wants to do after a long day of fishing is spend time on the phone or computer communicating with clients. But it’s a very necessary part of the business. You bait the hook with all your advertising and promotions, and when the phone rings and the emails arrive, it means you’ve got a “bite”. But unless you respond in a timely manner you’ll miss the hook-set. We’re now living in a world where people have been conditioned to expect immediate response when they make a request or attempt to purchase a product or service and when someone decides they want to book a fishing trip, it’s now too easy for them to simply click over to the next website and book the other guy if they don’t hear from you very soon. When out on the water we’re often cut off from all outside communications so unless there’s someone back on shore to handle our bookings it’s important to respond to messages at the first opportunity.

Best job in the world?

Despite my comments and assertions about the unique, challenging, and precarious nature of the business, for the right person charter fishing still has enough going for it that it can make for a great profession. After all, what other job allows someone to be their own boss, spend lots of time out on the water, tinker with boats, tackle and all kinds of cool fishing equipment, hang out at marinas, and fish every day? Basically captains get paid to do what other boaters and fishermen do for recreation. And when you think about it that way, if you can handle it - it’s not a bad gig! §


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